COVID-19 had other plans: how we got stuck in Sudan

Maria Peiró Mir is a Senior Project Manager at GPG currently working on UK Home Office funded project tackling human trafficking in Sudan.

We landed in Khartoum airport on a Tuesday night in early March. This was the second time we had made it to Khartoum since the revolution. The project was awarded back in April 2019 before the revolution happened and Omar al-Bashir was deposed. We watched the events in Sudan develop with great anticipation, excited for what was coming to the country, rooting from afar. Finally, in November we managed to travel to Sudan and meet with our counterparts in Khartoum for our two projects. GPG has worked in the country since 2016 – in quite a challenging environment- and we felt honoured and excited to see what would be possible in the ‘New Sudan’.

The project that we work with in Sudan aims to support the country’s efforts in tackling human trafficking, particularly collaborating with the National Committee to Counter Trafficking within the Ministry of Justice, and eventually, support the Transitional Legislative Council, upon its formation. Sudan is a source, destination and transit country for trafficked people, as well as migrants and refugees who are vulnerable to trafficking. The passage of anti-human trafficking legislation in 2014 was a major accomplishment for Sudan and a significant first step towards combatting modern slavery.  However, like in many countries, human trafficking is a very complex crime and there are many challenges in the implementation of the law. The end of the dictatorship has created both challenges and opportunities for human trafficking in Sudan. On the one hand, ongoing negotiations on the peace deal and establishing a transitional government have diverted attention from specific policy areas such as human trafficking. On the other hand, the emphasis placed on human rights during the protests means there is strong support for action on key issues among reform-minded political stakeholder groups. This suggests there is political support for a robust response to human rights violations, including human trafficking, and we have identified that in our visits, but strong actions to support these claims are still to be seen.

As much as we prepare and plan for visits in this line of work, these have to be adapted in the blink of an eye. This past March things were moving at a rapid pace and within 24 hours, everything changed. When we arrived in Khartoum, Covid-19  felt to us like a distant threat that we did not have to worry about in the region. Flying was uncomfortable, with a lot of temperature testing, masks, vests, and compulsive use of hand sanitizer, but once we landed in Sudan things seemed to be calm and life continued as usual. GPG staff got there early, myself and my colleague Nur had work to do before the rest of our teams made it to Khartoum. Our team of Associates were going to join us that weekend but earlier than planned, GPG Associate Lord Jeremy Purvis, flew to join us in Khartoum from Beirut, as borders in Lebanon were already closing due to the Corona virus threat.

And so, the domino effect began: the FCO Sudan travel advice changed to advising against all but essential travel which meant that the rest of the GPG Project Teams were unable to join us in Khartoum. Suddenly our meetings and working sessions with the Ministry of Justice, the Cabinet, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the FFC, the Chamber of Federal Governance and other international stakeholders would have to be delivered by only three people instead of 9. Later that same day, we received a tweet from a non-confirmed source stating that Khartoum Airport was shut down without further notice, and land borders were also closed. No mention at all about when these would be open again.

After a bit of panic and frenzy shopping of chocolate biscuits, Jeremy, Nur and I continued with our plans, since our Sudanese counterparts were doing so too.

From all the scenarios a project manager adds to the risk register requested by a donor agency, I personally had never included ‘being stuck in a country without a clue of when borders will be open again’ – it is definitely in our risk registers now!

As dramatic as it felt the first night, our plans continued as normal and if anything, it offered us more valuable time to work on each line of the projects. Suddenly, the schedules of our Sudanese counterparts were freeing up. The work during the week ran smoothly and we made a lot of progress, paired with some of our Sudanese colleagues amused at our panicky faces about the uncertainty of our stay. The Secretary General of the Cabinet was happy that we were staying in Khartoum and said something along the lines of “well, now that you have to stay we better get working while you are here”. At the risk of romanticizing the situation, it did put things in perspective. GPG is often challenged on the notion of not being based in country, and I do see why that could be necessary for some projects but for our line of expertise, working directly in partnership with politicians and civil servants that run very busy lives, a sense of urgency, relevance and space to reflect from visit to visit adds value to our interactions. Not always being based in country has allowed us to not fall into the all-too common over-involvement in the implementation of a project that is meant to be locally led. Naturally, it has its challenges, but particularly now we can see the benefits of our model, our connections were already made, our system was already set, a lot of our interactions were already taking place via WhatsApp and similar technology, we did not turn 180 degrees, but rather fine-tuned our approach. GPG was quite ready for this, and as much as we will be travelling again once we can, we have managed to maintain engagement, develop content in partnership with our counterparts in Sudan and even set up events such as last week’s ‘Establishing a Regional Approach to Human Trafficking and Forced Labour’. This has been a great (and very challenging) opportunity for us to strengthen systems and practices that were already in place, and add more to those where possible. From the first day after we got back to the UK (and Spain, respectively) the conversations in the organization were around: how do we turn this situation into an opportunity ?

And we did get back to the UK and Spain in the end. Khartoum International Airport opened for a 48 hour window which turned into an interesting quest for flight tickets all over town. The next commercial flight after the one we managed to get on, got back to the UK on the 21st of May. Sudan remains mostly on lockdown monitoring closely the development of COVID-19 and as with the rest of the world, it is still very unclear when borders will be open again.